It isn’t too surprising, in retrospect, that Apple would have had a big plan in mind all along to rebuild its Maps product. After all, the initial release six years ago was infamously disastrous, with so many problems that Tim Cook was forced to issue a public apology. The accuracy and usability of Maps has notably improved over the years, such that many users today probably consider it to be a reasonable second choice behind Google. But why would Apple settle for second best? Indeed, if you’re curious whether Maps still has a bad reputation, all you have to do is look at Google’s autosuggestions (“apple maps not working,” “apple maps down,” “apple maps outage,” etc.).
As I’ve previously discussed, Apple’s original rush to market involved cobbling together map and local data from multiple third-party sources, and this shaky foundation has been causing trouble ever since, in particular when it comes to consistency and incorporating updates.
Matthew Panzarino has a thorough write-up in TechCrunch covering exactly what will change when Maps is relaunched. In sum, Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up, replacing third-party data with its own natively sourced street view photography, 3D topography, and data sourced from iPhone users. There’s a lot more to it; Panzarino and others have speculated that Apple might be planning ahead to a world where digital mapping’s leap forward in precision helps to train driverless vehicles and enables new and dazzling AR experiences.
This is all very exciting, but in the press I’ve seen, I kept waiting to hear more about local search. So far, not much on that topic has been forthcoming from Apple. Not to be overly myopic, but it does seem like connecting consumers with local businesses will continue to be a critical use case for Maps—perhaps less importantly for Apple which, unlike Google, has no advertising model to promote. But even so, businesses will always feature prominently among the points of interest Maps users will want to locate and learn about, and Google appears to have proven that engagement with business owners is the best and perhaps only way to get high-quality business data into your mapping product.
So I’m eager to see underlying map data improve, but I’d be even more interested if I knew Apple had a roadmap to improve the local data layer. Here are some things Apple should do if the company truly wants to move beyond its second-place status in local.
1. Replace Yelp content with native reviews and photos
It can make a lot of sense to integrate engaging third-party content in a local directory, and all local publishers have done this over the years. But at this point in its maturity, Apple needs to take ownership of reviews and photos, two of the most prominent components of its listings. Without native reviews, Apple will not be able to provide review response capabilities to business owners, and thus will lag behind Google, Yelp, Facebook, and Trip Advisor, all of whom offer review response. Photos, like reviews, help consumers choose between businesses and give businesses the opportunity to show off their assets.
2. Expand Apple Maps Connect
The Connect website is still very basic and has not grown much since its launch four years ago. In addition to some of the specific improvements I discuss below, the site should get a usability update—there are several unnecessary steps in the claiming process—and should be accessible directly from the Maps app.
3. Add support for brands
Apple does source brand data directly from brands or through intermediaries (like Brandify). But there’s no convenient way to manage multiple locations of a business in the Connect dashboard or elsewhere. Brands are an important part of the local ecosystem and should be better supported. The best way for Apple to do this is to release an API that lets brands or their intermediaries easily submit and update listing content.
4. Ask users to contribute
User-generated content is conspicuously missing from Apple Maps. Not that Apple should copy Google directly, but it’s clear that Google’s multiple incentives for users to add data points and content to listings have paid off in a big way. Google now has a huge head start in UGC that will help ensure, for instance, that Google Home devices have access to a wealth of long tail local data that Siri can’t match. If Apple wants to be a real local company, in addition to a real mapping company, it will need a UGC channel.
5. Launch a real website or app
This one might be controversial, but I do think there’s an inherent limitation, even in this mobile-first world, in the fact that Apple Maps has no desktop presence outside the Maps app on Macs (does anyone actually use that?). It isn’t that Apple needs a search engine; they just need a portal for interacting with map content that doesn’t require owning an iPhone. Without this, they’re cutting out not only a potentially larger consumer base but also a huge sector of the business owner audience they should be bending over backwards to please. Yes, business owners can claim listings through Connect, but the ones who don’t have iPhones or Macs are otherwise completely blind to the Maps user experience. It’s one case where Apple’s walled garden approach makes little sense.
6. Help businesses understand ranking
Because of the work I do, I know for a fact that brands are paying close attention to where they rank in Apple Maps for keyword searches. But in comparison with Google, where external and internal sources are well established, Apple offers no way for businesses to understand what factors affect ranking or how to rank better. We can make a few assumptions—for instance, that ranking in a native phone app like Maps is likely driven by proximity to a GPS location, and that in lieu of signals Apple doesn’t have access to, like citations and natively sourced reviews, Maps likely judges relevance using the primary and secondary categories of the business. But this is a little understood topic, and businesses have no clear sense of how to compete for top positions.
7. Offer analytics to businesses
In a similar vein, the lack of analytics in the Apple Maps Connect platform leaves businesses in the dark about how many views and clicks their listings receive. Without numerical data on listing performance, businesses have no idea what they stand to gain by providing Apple with accurate and up-to-date listing information, nor do they know whether Apple’s listings convert at a rate that is comparable to other channels.
8. Fix the taxonomy
Despite its presumed reliance on categories as a ranking factor, Maps has a relatively poor taxonomy. As an example, I work with a local business that sells a variety of gifts, books, jewelry, and clothes; its primary Google category is “gift shop.” In Apple’s taxonomy, gift shops are listed under the misleading parent category, “Flowers & Gifts.”
Turns out the parent category “Flowers & Gifts” affects search results in an unfortunate way. The search shown here for “flowers arroyo grande ca” shows multiple irrelevant results including gift shops and antique stores near me that definitely don’t sell flowers.
Add to this the fact that businesses can choose only three categories (Google allows 10), and that specific categories (“women’s clothing”) often don’t have a more generic option (“clothing”), meaning that businesses like the gift shop in my example can only represent a fraction of their offerings.
9. Support service-area businesses
Millions of U.S. businesses that don’t have a storefront are currently missing from Apple Maps or are incorrectly linked to residential addresses, because Apple offers no method to list a service area, hide a residential address, or indicate that your business only serves customers at their locations.
10. Think different
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the list I’ve offered here is not much more than a gap analysis with Google Maps as its model. Apple will, I hope, take a creative approach to local much as they have with their iconic hardware and operating systems. Apple needs to figure out its own version of local. They’re perhaps the only company, with the possible exception of Facebook, that has the potential to think outside the Google box in this area.
It’s intriguing that Apple would have skipped over these somewhat obvious improvements in favor of a complete, ground-up rebuild. After all, despite the lingering shadow of its troubled launch, Apple Maps actually overtook Google’s user base on iPhones quite a while ago, suggesting it isn’t as broken as Apple seems to think it is. Regardless, at this rate I’d guess that it may be months or even years before the company gets around to improving local features. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong, and I’m eager to see some of Apple’s innovative energy applied to local.